Bolivian Buzz: Coca Farmers Switch to Coffee Beans

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Aizar Raldes / AFP / Getty Images

A car drives along a road in the Yungas region in Bolivia on Feb. 9, 2012. Coca farmers in the region are now growing coffee

For millennia, farmers in Bolivia's breathtaking Yungas Valley terraced their steep mountainsides for coca. They grew just enough of the leaf, which is sacred to the indigenous peoples of South America's Andes region, to make tea and chew to combat high-altitude exhaustion. That changed in the 20th century, when the U.S. and European appetite for cocaine created an equally insatiable demand for the drug's key ingredient. Coca harvests exploded, and the plant went from a side crop to an unrivaled source of farmers' livelihoods. Getting those cocaleros to stop cultivating coca, in fact, seemed as difficult as getting addicts to stop consuming cocaine. "There's always a market for coca," says Yungas farmer Lucio Copa.

But a new outlet is brewing. In the Yungas, coffee is suddenly supplanting coca, thanks in part to a U.S.-funded drug-war program — and economic luck. The valley, whose altitude ranges from 760 m (2,500 ft.) to 1,100 m (3,600 ft.) above sea level, is ideal for growing coffee beans. "My father grew coffee," says Ever Choquehuanca, who heads a farmers' association that includes the Yungas. Still, when international coffee prices were as low as 10¢ per lb. in the 1980s and '90s, the choice to grow coca — which could bring a poor family a respectable $2,000 a year — was a no-brainer. Then, two years ago, global panic over a possible coffee-bean shortage sent futures prices soaring, and Yungas farmers saw their coffee income nearly double overnight. Now the Bolivian government estimates 23,000 hectares (57,500 acres) of coffee cultivation in the Yungas — 3,000 more than what's being planted for coca. "We have less need to plant coca," says Choquehuanca.

That Bolivian turnaround is one of the more impressive reminders that, finally, one of Washington's most frustrated drug-war priorities — alternative development, or the effort to get Latin America's legions of coca-, cannabis- and poppy-dependent farmers to plant non-drug-related crops — is starting to bear fruit. "It is important to establish real competitive incomes," a Bolivia-based official at the U.S. development agency USAID, which headed the coffee crusade there in tandem with the Bolivian government, tells TIME. And in Bolivia's case, that meant nothing less than reviving age-old coffee-farming practices while at the same time introducing modern techniques to create a top new export.

In 2004, USAID introduced the idea of "specialty" or gourmet coffee to the Yungas. At that time, Bolivia's exported "green bean" (the coffee-bush fruit that is washed and shelled but not yet roasted) was among Latin America's worst. "We had no idea how to grow good coffee," says Choquehuanca, whose Federation of Intercultural Communities represents 30,000 Yungas coffee growers. But USAID started working with 9,000 Yungas families, teaching them how to cultivate organic shade-grown beans while providing them with key equipment like drying beds and shelling machines. The agency also drummed up interest among potential U.S., European and Japanese importers by organizing annual Cup of Excellence competitions that invited international coffee experts to Bolivia to taste its reborn bean.

USAID's timing turned out to be impeccable. By 2009, quality among Bolivia's more than 80 coffee cooperatives had improved so much that the experts were scoring the country's bean above 90 out of 100. That year, prices had also risen from just over $1 per lb. in 2004 to $2.30. But the real turning point came the following year. Because of the Yungas Valley's altitude, its coffee was spared the ruin of the 2010–11 devastatingly hot temperatures that wiped out coffee crops across Latin America. Prices for Yungas beans as a result shot up to between $4 and $4.50 per lb. — which triggered the decisive pivot from coca to coffee in the valley. Farmers could now earn $6,000 more per hectare of coffee than per hectare of coca, prodding them to increase coffee production by 8% in 2010. The Bolivian Federation of Coffee Exporters (FECAFEB) estimates 2011 will show similar growth.

Of course, not everyone can make the switch. Some lack land: Yungas plots are often less than a quarter hectare, which is fine for getting by with coca, but coffee requires more space. Still, the fact that specialty-coffee production has taken hold in the Yungas delights the coffee-house crowd in the U.S., especially importers like Keith Tomlinson, outgoing coffee director at Minneapolis-based Peace Coffee, which has sold Bolivia's unique "high altitude" variety for the past two years. The Yungas bean, says Tomlinson, is still relatively inexpensive, has a good nutty flavor and is versatile enough to be roasted alone or in a blend.

Currently, coffee exports by Bolivia, South America's poorest nation, are only a fraction of those produced by heavyweights like Colombia or Guatemala. But experts like Tomlinson say that Bolivia could become a major player since its wealth of high-altitude soil provides perfect refuge for beans as global warming forces crops to higher ground.

The trend toward coffee is also welcome news for Bolivian President Evo Morales, who before his 2005 election rose to political prominence as head of the country's largest cocalero union (a post he still holds today). Since 2008 — the year Morales expelled U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration personnel — Bolivia has been on Washington's drug-war blacklist for "failing demonstrably" to meet its commitment to combat drug production and trafficking. Still, the leftist and anti-U.S. Morales may have trouble stomaching a thank-you to USAID for its role in promoting Yungas' coffee renaissance, especially since he has long criticized alternative agricultural development as a U.S.-government sham to infiltrate coca-growing regions.

Even if that conspiracy claim is unfounded, Morales' frustration underscores alternative development's poor track record: after almost 20 years, the USAID program had never achieved a sustainable decline in Bolivia's coca crop. And a big reason for that failure, says Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, a Bolivia-based drug-war watchdog group, is that such programs rarely "take into account the reality on the ground." For example, in Bolivia's other coca-growing region, the Chapare, USAID pushed the cultivation of pineapple, much of which rotted for lack of markets, and then sustainable forest management, which left families with scant, if any, income for a decade as they waited for trees to mature. In each case, farmers simply returned to coca.

What's more, U.S. counterdrug officials hardly helped the effort with imperious demands that the Bolivian government quash all coca growing — even though almost half of the country's 36,000-hectare (89,000 acres) coca crop gets used in tea and other benign, legitimate products. The U.N.'s International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has been just as high-handed: this week, the INCB scolded Bolivia for defending the traditional, nonnarcotic uses of coca. Bolivia is South America's third largest coca producer behind Colombia and Peru, but much less of its harvest ends up getting snorted as cocaine.

The good news about the coffee success, says Ledebur, is that it "cuts through the myth that coca farmers are inherently invested in the drug trade. They are simply pragmatic business people looking to sustain their families." But that pragmatism works both ways. "We are totally susceptible to the New York Stock Exchange," notes FECAFEB president Eustaquio Huiza — which is why Choquehuanca admits that his fellow coffee farmers leave a little coca in the ground. Should coffee-bean prices crash, they can always fall back on their former staple crop. The one that always has a market.